Harriet Wilson and the White Reader: Authority and Audience in Our Nig

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Columbia University. Center for American Culture Studies, Cambridge University Press


From the time of its reissue in 1983, Harriet Wilson's 1859 text, Our Nig, has inspired critical discussion, much of which has concerned the matter of genre and related questions of the author's purpose and audience. When Henry Louis Gates first introduced it to contemporary readers, he called it both a “novel” and a “third–person autobiography,” further suggesting that it might be read in the context of sentimental novels, as he analyzed the book's interesting departures from Nina Baym's overplot in Woman's Fiction (“Introduction,” xi, xli–lv). Since then a number of critics have expanded upon and argued with Gates's preliminary assessment of Wilson's work and audience. Hazel Carby argues that Wilson writes to black readers, assuming that many of them would have shared her experience, whereas most other critics, including Claudia Tate and Margaret Lindgren, assume that Wilson is writing to a white audience, and negotiating the sense of difference between reader and writer. Barbara White and Eric Gardner, establishing that the actual “Bellmont” family, the Haywards, had strong abolitionist connections, suggest the complications of audience for Wilson. And Gardner, like Carby, suggests that Wilson would have assumed that her story would have been marketable only to a small group of Northern black readers, many of whom would have had similar experiences. Drawing on William Andrews's work with black autobiography, Beth Maclay Doriani describes how Wilson (and Harriet Jacobs) subvert the traditional genre of black autobiography, at the same time as they adhere to 19th–century conventions for publication and sale to white audiences. John Ernest argues that Wilson would have understood the ways in which her story would have been read and misread by proslavery forces. Drawing on William Andrews's discussion of Henry Bibb's narrative, Ernest argues persuasively for Wilson's extraordinarily complex understanding of her audience, to whom she appeals for an exchange based on a recognition of the essential mistrust of social groups.